Some types of behavior everyone knows are criminal, like murder, burglary or kidnapping. But what about standing around on a street corner or parking in the wrong spot?
The Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments of the US Constitution dictate that no one can be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law. Therefore, it is unconstitutional for the government to punish a person for an action unless there is a law explicitly stating that that action is a crime. This means that criminal law is exclusively statutory, and each state and municipality — as well as the federal government — has its own criminal code. In an attempt to standardize criminal law, the American Law Institute drafted the Model Penal Code (MPC) in the 1960s. Since then, the majority of states now have adopted all or part of the MPC as a basis for their criminal codes.
Criminal v. Civil Law
There are two kinds of wrongs that a person can commit under the law: one is a crime and the other is a civil wrong, known as a tort. To understand the major difference between the two, it helps to think of them in terms of what happens to someone if he is found to have perpetrated a legal wrong against someone else.
Crime is all about punishment. If a person is found guilty of a crime, they may serve time, be on probation, do community service or pay a fine. If a judge or jury finds that someone has committed a tort, then the judge will call for either monetary compensation or an injunction (ceasing the injurious activity). Committing a tort will never land someone in jail.
Mens Rea – The Criminal Mind
One of the most elusive concepts to grasp for those learning about criminal law is that of mens rea, or the “criminal mind.” For certain types of crimes — particularly the ones that result in jail time — the prosecution must prove that the perpetrator acted with criminal intent. It may seem straightforward, but it can be a very slippery element to prove. For example, a person can intend to carry a bag of white powder in his pocket, but does he knowingly carry cocaine? In order to be guilty of most crimes that carries jail time, a person has to knowingly violate the law. To commit first-degree murder, for example, one must purposefully and knowingly take another’s life; if the killing is reckless or negligent, then the perpetrator will be charged with a lesser crime.
Common Defenses to Crimes
Once a person commits a crime, there are several ways for a defendant to try and convince a judge or a jury that he is not guilty. The simplest argument is to claim that the defendant didn’t commit the crime at all. A defendant might also try for self-defense, where he must prove that he was threatened with imminent, unlawful, serious bodily harm and that there was no available alternative to committing the crime. The insanity defense — which is rarely successful — in most jurisdictions requires a defendant to prove that he did not know right from wrong when he committed the crime. Even for a mentally unstable person, this degree of “insanity” is very difficult to prove. Some might try to use entrapment as a defense, but convincing a judge that a defendant would not have committed the crime had police not been involved can be extremely difficult, especially for people with prior convictions.
Preparing to Meet With a Criminal Defense Attorney
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